The German Surrealist Max Ernst was one of the most outstanding artists and personalities of the Surrealist movement. Notable for the invention of a number of automatic artistic techniques, his body of work is also remarkable for its creation of a densely rich personal mythology.
Central to that mythology is Ernst’s alter ego, Loplop, Superior of Birds. As I noted in my previous post A Week of Max Ernst: Monday, Ernst wrote that he hatched from an egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest. He traced the figure of Loplop to a traumatic childhood event: his beloved pet bird had died on the same day that his younger sister was born and he consequently conflated the two events to the point that he confused birds with humans.
As well as referencing Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Ernst, whose art is drenched in alchemy and esotericism, would surely have been familiar with the idea of the language of the birds; the perfect, divine language found in mythology and the occult sciences that can only be understood by the initiated.
Max Ernst is the complete Surrealist artist. With Johannes Baargeld he formed Cologne Dada and organized the infamous 1920 Cologne Dada Fair which had visitors enter the exhibition via the urinals of a beer hall, where they were then greeted by a girl wearing a communion dress reciting pornographic poetry. Inside they were invited to destroy the artworks on display with an axe that Ernst had thoughtfully provided.. Ernst was a key figure in the ‘mouvement flou’, the transitional period between Dada and Surrealism. Under the banner of Surrealism Ernst experimented with photo-montage, collage, collage novels; various automatism techniques including decalcomania, frottage and grattage. His visionary figurative paintings set the benchmark for the realistic depiction of dream and hallucinatory states that was to figure so prominently in the movement.
The Blessed Virgin Chastising The Infant Jesus Before Three Witness from 1926 was a considerable success de scandale when first exhibited. The outraged Bishop of Cologne promptly closed down the exhibition. He was right to detect more than a whiff of blasphemy. Ernst is implying that the Infant Jesus wasn’t perfect and just like any other child his behaviour could result in a severe punishment. The Virgin maintains her halo while administering the spanking yet the Infant’s crown has dropped to the ground. And all the while Paul Eluard, Andre Breton and the artist pruriently look on.